Long haul flights are not something most people look forward to. So why not turn your Dubai layover into a destination for a few days? We did! If you’re wondering what to do on your Dubai layover, here’s some ideas to get you started.
In a short time Dubai has become a world city where 88% of the population is foreign; just about everyone you encounter there will speak excellent English.
Dubai is the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, a nation made up of seven independent emirates. Though initially having made its fortunes through the discovery of oil in 1966, the visionaries of Dubai understood that growth cannot depend on one major source alone. Today, oil reserves have almost dried up, but sectors such as finance, real estate, construction, aviation, and trade are flourishing. And let’s not forget the booming tourism. Dubai has bounced back nicely from the economic downturn in 2009 and is preparing to host Expo 2020.
What to see and do during your Dubai layover
Dubai is like a sensory overload. In addition to bus tours, boat tours, beaches, shopping, and more shopping, there are enough theme parks to keep you entertained for three weeks straight. IMG Worlds of Adventure, Legoland, Bollywood Parks, Motiongate, Aquaventure, just to name a few. Assuming that we are only trying to get a taste of the city on our stopover, these theme parks alone would require a separate vacation. (Editor’s note: when you’re ready for the theme parks check out discounted ticket links at the end of this blog post!)
This 828-meter architectural marvel is the landmark of downtown Dubai. You will take way too many pictures of this beauty. At night, it exudes all sorts of bright colors and patterns that put all the other lit-up skyscrapers in the world to shame. While you’re here, you might as well say you’ve been At the Top (that’s what it’s called) of the world’s tallest building.
Visitors can purchase tickets to go to Level 124/125, or pay three times more to add the lounge on Level 148, which, at 555 meters, is the world’s highest outdoor observation deck. To avoid long queues or sellouts, purchase your ticket online in advance, where you will have to specify a date and entry time. Not surprisingly, the time slot for sunset is much more expensive. Interestingly, you can theoretically experience two sunsets here: once from the base and then jump into an elevator to see it again at the top. (Discount tickets through our affiliate partner Klook are available here)
The Dubai Fountain
Just at the foot of Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest performing fountain. The Dubai Fountain is part of the 30-acre Burj Lake, which is surrounded by a bustling promenade. Every evening, from 6pm at half-hour intervals, the water dances in sync with light and music, blasting up to 140 meters in the air. The sheer size of the fountain already makes the show awe-inspiring, but the expressive choreography is really the icing on the cake.
The Dubai Mall
With over 1,200 shops and 80 million visitors a year, the Dubai Mall is the world’s biggest shopping center based on total area and is currently expanding to receive 100 million visitors a year. What I like about the mall is that it has character. Also attractive for me is that besides luxury brands you would expect in a place like this, there are plenty of shops within a normal price range. The selection is mind-boggling.
The most impressive attraction in this mall is Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo. The sight of one of the world’s biggest aquariums (50 m long) in the middle of the mall will stop you in your tracks as busy sea creatures of all colors, shapes, and sizes mesmerize you. Maybe you’ll feel like scuba diving with these fish…and be on display for all the shoppers!
Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood
If all this modernity seems too inauthentic to you, hit Al Fahidi west of Dubai Creek for a feel of Old Dubai. You’ll see traditional style buildings complete with wind towers, which served as air conditioning back in the days.
For modern air conditioning, head to Al Fahidi Fort. This houses the Dubai Museum exhibiting the history of the city as well as Bedouin life. The Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood has a few other attractions too, such as the free Coffee Museum. Together with oriental decor, the museum lovingly displays the international history of coffee alongside grinding and brewing equipment throughout the ages. You can take a break from the heat and sample some coffee here. For 5 dirhams, you can get a small cup of Arabic coffee served with dates. This neighborhood is nice and compact if you just have a four to five-hour layover to sneak out of the airport.
What I hoped to do but didn’t get a chance to was participating in a “cultural meal” hosted by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. During this traditional culinary experience, lunch (or breakfast or dinner) is served along with a good portion of Emirati culture, customs, and religion. Lunch would be cancelled during Ramadan (month of fasting during daylight hours), which was the time of my last layover in Dubai in June. Check out http://www.cultures.ae to book a cultural meal.
Just across the Dubai Creek is the district of Deira. There you will find the Old Souk, Gold Souk, and Spice Souk—all pretty touristy but fun to walk through.
The Palm Jumeirah
I wanted to see this construction wonder with my own eyes. The entire palm-shaped island is only visible either from a lounge of a very tall hotel building or on a skydiving excursion. So instead, we took the Palm Monorail from the base of the “tree” along the trunk to the end station at Atlantis Aquaventure Park. On the ride, you get a sense of how crazy and impressive this whole idea is, and of course, some great shots of the iconic Atlantis hotel.
JBR Beach and The Walk
Close to Dubai Marina, Jumeirah Beach Residence is a lively beachfront development with a pedestrian zone, hotels, residence, boutique shopping, and dining. The fine sand and pristine water look especially inviting with the umbrellas, sun loungers and beach beds for rent. There are plenty of beach and water sports to choose from. The promenade is a happenin’ place… OK, maybe not so much during the day in June (when we went). Nobody in their right mind would spend more than five minutes outside in the 41℃ heat plus humidity. Nevertheless, it’s the most popular beach in Dubai for good reasons.
Mall of the Emirates
Honestly, this mall looks like any other mall in North America, except the part with Ski Dubai, which I also had to see with my own eyes. It is impressive enough that the indoor ski hall has five slopes of varying difficulty plus a chair lift. But it also includes a snow park for tubing, bobsledding, tobogganing, in addition to live penguins for a close encounter. The ski resort will take care of ski/snowboard clothing and equipment if you don’t have your own. (Discount tickets are available here.)
If you have a three-day layover, definitely book a desert safari to fully submerse yourself in the real, unforgiving environment that Dubai was built on. Pick-up was around 3 p.m. for a six-hour excursion.
We did this in February and believe it or not, the temperature that afternoon was 10℃ with piercing gusts and light rain. The idea was to experience a desert sunset but the clouds denied us the opportunity. Still, the dune bashing in a 4×4 was more fun than a rollercoaster ride even though we got stuck a couple of times due to the damp sand. The view was amazing despite the miserable weather. No one wanted to get out of the car to take pictures because of the incredible wind, which would have shoved the fine sand into our camera anyway.
It was an hour of being thrown around in the SUV, so bring some motion sickness pills if you’re like me. The price of the trip included a camel ride, a barbecue dinner in a Bedouin camp, and a dance show. The evening program probably would have been much more enjoyable if it hadn’t been so bitterly cold. We did not bring any warm clothes on that trip.
Where to stay
There is no shortage of five-star hotels in Dubai, and every major Western hotel chain has a presence here. However, I wanted to get a feeling of being in the UAE, so I chose Ahmedia Heritage Guest House in the Deira district to experience Arabian architecture, hospitality, and breakfast. It was like waking up to a different world, yet cheaper than booking with a Western hotel chain. We enjoyed good Emirati cuisine at their sister property, Barjeel Heritage Guest House.
There is a simple metro system in the city but assuming that you will be pressed for time during our Dubai layover, I would recommend taking a taxi, which is inexpensive, to get to the sights. Be careful though, watch out for the luxury taxis. At the airport, the attendants push the tourists towards the black Lexus or Infinity taxis without mentioning, of course, that these belong to a different price category. They cost at least 1.5 times more than a regular taxi. We fell for that three times before we figured it out.
Citizens of many countries do not need a pre-arranged visa. Check here to see if you need a visa.
While I do not have any crime statistics on Dubai, my taxi driver, who was originally from Ghana, told me that this city is remarkably safe. “A woman can walk alone at 3 a.m. and nothing will happen to her,” he said. “You can walk down the street with a few thousand dollars cash in your hand and no one will rob you,” he bragged. “Oh but I heard that the U.S. is very dangerous. People will rip the iPhone out of your hand while you’re talking! I wouldn’t want to go there.”
I hope you are now thinking about making a mini-vacation out of your next Dubai layover. After a stopover in Dubai, I have a feeling you just might want to come back for a longer stay. I know I do; I still have to take that picture in front of Burj Al Arab, the legendary sail-shaped 7-star hotel!
Dubai: Theme Park links to discounted tickets through our affiliate partner.
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